Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Phoenicians – Early Trade in Ideas


“Trade and travel bring people into relationships with each other with resulting disruption of the local religious and ethical life, and then some political invention—foreign rule, or an imperial system, perhaps—is developed.”

--Robert Redfield, The Primitive World and Its Transformations (1953)

Model of a Phoenician bireme ship, c. 700 BC.  Science Museum Group collection


The original merchant seamen used the north star to navigate under sails red and blue.  The Phoenicians deployed the power of sea travel in the Mediterranean to become a connecting force between cultures.  Their navigation skills, legendary in the ancient world, allowed them to travel farther than other traders while keeping on course.  Coming from Tyre in Lebanon between the mountains and the seacoast, they left land hard to farm, sailing as far west as Spain, south to Egypt, east to Asia Minor, and even (reportedly, by Herodotus) around the African cape: a voyage of three years. 

For these voyages they developed seagoing ships with cedar planks, as well as multi-story concrete homes to save space on the coasts where trading centers were established.  This was their legacy to the Persians and Greeks who followed them, building on sea-going networks by assimilating seagoing knowledge.  Besides the keel and the bow battering ram, the Phoenicians have been credited with inventing caulking between planks as well as concrete construction.  

Their territory was the city ports of Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos, profiting from the breakdown of empires at the close of the Bronze Age until the Iron Age boom (around 1200 – 330 BC, predating and following classical antiquity).  The costs were developed into multicultural exchange posts for ideas as well as goods, and a new worldview orientation, based on what writer Adam Nicolson terms “harbor minds” (How to Be: Life Lessons from the Early Greeks, 2023).  “The whole of the Mediterranean was beginning to become a single maritime space…. that liberation from the overwhelming fixity of fate is an aspect of what we should think of as the dolphin mind, the mindset of entrepreneurial, adventuring people.  It is a form of mercantile courage, of reliance on fluidity” (pp.12, 289). As the first to chart the Mediterranean in total, Phoenicians set the model for the study of geography.

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Thales would conclude that the foundational principle of reality was in fact water, as in fluidity, transience, and motion, based in part on the role of sea power.   He proposed an earth floating in space like a ship on the water.

These seafaring people also provided a central communication device to the Western world. The written alphabet they carried was a sound-based language adaptable to all cultures as the prototype of all phonetic tongues.  This was as important between cultures as to the international polyglot populations of melting-pot trading ports. By 730 BC Greece had adopted the alphabet as the foundation for widespread literacy that anchored the rise of an astonishing creativity—starting with the justice system based on the written law of statutes.  Latin further evolved this writing into the letters we know today. It is where we get the word alphabet, from the first two letters of ancient Greek – Alpha and Beta.  

Founding Carthage as a major colony, ruling by merchant oligarchies, the Phoenicians had devised a regional order, an integrated culture based around the central sea.  “By around 800 BC, the Mediterranean was in touch with itself, a spinning, fractalizing, and hybridizing whirlpool of expanding and interacting cultures….in which the seed of early philosophy began to grow. (pp. 12-13).  This seed was nurtured by an alphabet mutually shared between city states, from Italy to the Black Sea by the time of the Odyssey, to include the artists’ signatures on the artifacts they were creating: statues, pottery, glass, jewelry; these items are among the rare archaeological evidence left behind.  Surprisingly, such evidence does not include written records of poetry, song, or narrative. 

The color purple made from tens of thousands of snails was the signature of Phoenicia off the Atlantic coast of Morocco. The famous purple dye, drawn from murex, was named after Tyre as Tyrian purple. This red-purple became the standard hue of power and prestige for the imperial rank in ancient Rome. 

However, as traders, they facilitated the large-scale sharing of cultural resources, the core of a cosmopolitan world.  Nicolson cites Ezekiel’s imagining the city of Tyre as a ship assembled from across the Mediterranean market: “her planks were of pine from what is now southern Turkey, her mast a cedar of Lebanon, her oars of oak from the woods above the Sea of Galilee.  Her bulwarks were inlaid with ivory carved in Cyprus, her sails and pennants of Egyptian linen” (p. 81). 

These ancient emporia gave rise to a world culture of trade, in ideas as well as goods, that began a reorientation to a wider world and the cities that anchored that world of exchanges. Such a realignment yielded innovations of every kind to build a world civilization.  We can look at the earliest organized traders as the entrepreneurs of poly-cultural skill, an interchange basic to a global civilization and its bias for a global emporium of creative power.